Are Americans Becoming More European?

Perhaps, but a new survey of American values reminds us what real exceptionalism means

  • Share
  • Read Later
Gallery Stock

Last week the Pew Research Center released a survey of American and European attitudes on a host of issues. Conservative commentators homed in on two findings: first, fewer Americans believe that our culture is superior to others (49% now, compared with 60% a decade ago); second, a rising share of young Americans support activist government. Such findings have been used to build a narrative that under President Obama, we’re becoming less American and more like those relativist, collectivist, socialist Europeans across the pond.

(MORE: Can Texas Really Secede from the Union? Not Legally)

The only problem with that interpretation is that the Pew study also found a deep and persistent “values gap” between the U.S. and Europe. Americans are far less likely than Europeans to believe that success is the result of circumstances beyond our control. And though young Americans believe more than their elders that government should help the needy, Americans overall believe that much less than Europeans do. We are still far more religious than Europeans, and far more likely to support military intervention and doubt the value of multilateralism and the U.N.

In other words, the U.S. in its attitudes generally remains an outlier nation, ruggedly committed to rugged individualism (even when it costs us). As for the finding that less than half of Americans believe in our cultural superiority — well, there exists an explanation somewhat more plausible than a vast Eurobama conspiracy. That explanation is learned humility.

The last benchmark for the Pew survey was 2002. Can you think of anything that’s happened since then to make Americans a little less confident? Perhaps a costly war in Iraq initiated on false premises. A housing bubble and then a financial crash. The emergence of China as competitor and creditor.

(MORE: Bashing China Is the Politics of the Weak)

Events of this past decade have taken some of the shine off American exceptionalism. The phrase itself has become utterly overloaded: the right uses it to justify its agenda, the left uses it to attack the right’s hubris, the right uses it to attack the left’s defeatism and on and on.

What’s unfortunate is that there is something real, worthy and salvageable in the idea of American exceptionalism. It has little to do with being dogmatically individualistic or having a much lower government-spending-to-GDP ratio than Europe has. It has to do with our openness to new people and ideas, and the diversity of cultures that immigrants carry in our country. For all its troubles, the U.S. remains the only country that Europeans, Asians, Africans, Latin Americans and Australians want to move to in great numbers. As they all become Americans, the U.S. becomes just a little more like all of them, creating hybrid attitudes and styles that will shape the planet’s future.

If we’re a touch less jingoistic today, and if the rising generation seems a bit more European (or Asian or Latin) in its comfort with collective action, it’s not a sign of national decline. It’s evidence of the U.S. doing what it does best: synthesizing. Adapting to a changing world. The U.S. is always going to be the land of liberty. But as we mature, we can cherish liberty and responsibility, the individual and community. And we can wear our unparalleled appeal with confidence, not cockiness. That’s an exceptionalism to aspire to.

37 comments
Cboyle88
Cboyle88

NEWS BREAK!

Dogs seen pooping on sandy beach

Are dogs becoming more like cats?


ZacharyMartinez
ZacharyMartinez

"For all its troubles, the U.S. remains the only country that Europeans, Asians, Africans, Latin Americans and Australians want to move to in great numbers." Funny that there are quite a few Americans over here in Australia, I guess that while many Australians want to move to the US, many Americans want to move to Australia. And the US is scarcely the only country in the world people are lining up from around the world to immigrate to. Heaps of people from all over the world trying to move to Australia... and to the UK... and to Canada... and to quite a few European countries. If you are living in a country wrecked with poverty, war, political oppression, overpopulation, who wouldn't want to move to the relatively wealthy, peaceful, etc., West? People will go where they'll be taken in (or where they already know people). Your supposed "uniqueness" of the US turns out to be not that unique at all. But that's not an uncommon thing for people to do - to claim that their own country is "unique" in some way when several other countries are similar in that regard.

JohnFernelius
JohnFernelius

"Superior culture" is tremendously vague. Superior to what? Pakistan? Sure. England or Japan? Probably not.

TianaKaiMiami
TianaKaiMiami

There is a large migration to non-US countries... I recently moved to Europe and have witnessed many more immigrants heading to Europe beside the States. There is a health care system in place and jobs (depending on the field). The States does pay on time however, which is a huge plus, and they have more conveniences than most countries I have experienced. But Alas, EU offers so much flavor, culture, travel opportunities, etc. that the States does not have. There is a fine line of being too American and too European.... I hope I fall somewhere in the middle. But, I do think that the average American has a long way to go in being 'European', they first need to know that the US shouldn't be the main country that appears in Google Maps. lol. 

Cabaedium
Cabaedium

The second-last paragraph made me laugh out loud. The US remains one of the most sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and fiercely regressive nations in the developed world. Education lags far behind, while the rate of gun-related deaths tops that of war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. Americans are still hilariously paranoid about communism (or socialism, they tend to use the terms interchangeably), shockingly arrogant about their role in the world, and staunchly set in their ways. America is exceptional only in its self-delusion and its capacity for hatred. It is certainly not "open," and its diversity comes despite its best efforts.

Gulliver
Gulliver

Eric, didn't notice in your article any traces of the 'American exceptionalism' or the openness. Shall sadly admit that I find the article patronising and ignorant.

Priceless
Priceless

you do know, what most europeans might think after reading this article? right?

-quote-..our cultural superiority...-quote

-quote-...openness to new people and ideas...-quote     yeah, those who want to live in the USA. What about the others? 

and the last paragraph in general.

sorry to say, but i find that article quite ignorant.

nofooljule
nofooljule

This article is a fine example of the teasons behind US decline. You really are better than no-one, wr are all equal. And that is being generous. No gated communities in europe.

tankmk52
tankmk52

As a European and having lived here in the US now for nearly twenty years, I have become even less inclined towards becoming an american than I already was. The ephany came by the end of 2001, when the clamour for the war in Iraq started and from there on, my opinion of america has precariously circled the drain. Having by now two (american borne, but dual citizenship) children I wonder what they can look forward to in this jingoistic and scientifically backward has-been nation. It didn't used to be that way, but my personal amrican experiences as set off against my European ones have me reluctantly reach the stop-loss point in favor of the European goverment-centric approach.           In short, I am planning to liquidate my amerian assets and return to where I came from as soon as my (american borne, but dual citizenship) kids are ready for college. Europe has better food, better education, better healthcare and better quality of living at (when adding it all up) a relatively lower cost than the american one.

lolly53
lolly53

On the topic of US is/is not like Europe - Let's cut to the chase.

All economies boil down to the choice between guns or butter.  Butter is the freebies that make the citizens feel good immediately.Guns are investments in military and defense - things that do not make the citizens feel like the government is supporting them, until they are attacked.

For almost 100 years, the USA has been denying its citizens butter, so it can buy guns for the entire world.  Thus, Europe has prospered and brought its citizens much butter.

It is time for the USA to stop buying guns for the planet.  Let Europe defend itself. Cut NATO to zero.  Let the Middle East fester as ithas done for 4,000 years.

9/11 proved one thing - there are not enough guns to stop a fanatical terrorist. Iraq and Afghanistan proved the same thing that Alexander the Great's armies learned - armies march in but they cannot hold the ground.

America could be a great nation, if we balanced guns and butter according to  our own citizen's needs, and let the rest of the planet sort itself out.  As an added bonus, the rest of the plaent would probably like America more than they do now.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

The issue with becoming more like Europe is that, just as they are discovering, you can't spend more than you take in year after year forever and not expect the bill to eventually come due.  The European model means a consistently lower standard of living and higher unemployment rate than in the U.S.  It's simple economics - if it is easier to get by on government assistance then some portion (not all, but some) will decide that's good enough.  The result is less economic output and more government spending.  I can't imagine most Americans aspire to an unemployment rate permanently at the current level, which is the long-term average in the Eurozone.  You'll also notice that European nations are currently adopting labor and fiscal reforms that make them look more like...America.

Malena
Malena

Why the hell do you think Americans are more open towards new ideas and cultures than Europeans?? Remeber, you're living in a country where people still think homosexuality is a desease and you're still arguing about abortion!!

DBritt
DBritt

"The only problem with that interpretation..." (paragraph 2)

Is that it's completely delusional? Bringing facts to this discussion is like bringing a squirt gun to a shooting range. The best way to "discuss" this jingoistic fear pulp is to call out what it is: crazy.

Atadashi
Atadashi

Let's hope so... Having lived in Europe for two years, it was disappointing to have to return to the U. S. All the stereotypes of the people of Europe; pointed out to me by friends and U. S. media; were wrong.  The most amazing difference between U.S.eans and Europeans was the high level of tolerance shown by all those I met in Europe. On average, of all the U.S.eans I met in Europe, seven out of ten wanted to remain in Europe instead of returning to The United States; because they felt safer in Europe. So did I.

The United States attitude is just too arrogant, too. We refer to ourselves as, “Americans”, but that is just too broad of a description; Chileans, Mexicans, Canadians, Panamanians, Brazilians are all “Americans”, too. But it is hard to make plural a word that is already plural; States. So we opted to take the word, “Americans”, as our definition even though all people of North America, Central America, and South America are, “Americans”.

VincentLovece
VincentLovece

@ZacharyMartinez Funny, Australia isn't half as diverse as the US is, and Australians move to the US in larger number than the other way around. 

justme2012
justme2012

Superior ? no insanely and incredibly insular? yes. I will never forget working at the Atlanta Olympics where the first and second place in a road race were barely announced. Then having a conversation with an educated American this year who said he would never move to Singapore,......as the middle east is not safe. Terrifying

melanogaster
melanogaster

@Cabaedium  

Gun-related deaths per 100,000 in the US in 2011 - 9, of which 2.98 were homicides, 5.75 were suicides, and 0.27 were accidents

Death rate of US soldiers in Iraq, per 100,000 (I can't find specifically gun deaths - do you have a source?), in 2005 - about 1,320

As far as other developed countries, the US is on the high end - but Montenegro has 8.55 and Switzerland has 6.4 gun-related deaths per 100,000, so it's not like we're an outlier. As far as gun-related homicides go, we're beat out by Finland at 3.64 and France (yes, France!) at 3.00. We top the charts on suicides, by only by a little - Switzerland has 5.61. And our gun-related accidents are closely followed up by Canada, at 0.22.

Our education system could certainly use some work. The US ranks 13th on the UN's education index from 2007, having moved down from 12th. We're behind such excellent systems as Finland, Denmark, Australia, Canada, and Norway, to name a few. However, we still outperform Spain, Sweden, Belgium, France, Italy, the UK, Germany, Israel, Switzerland... the list goes on.

We can be pretty sexist, though I'm not sure how to quantify that. If we go by percentage of senior executives who are women, then in 2011 the US did pretty poorly at 15%. But, that's better than Switzerland and Denmark (both 12%), Germany at 11%, or Japan at 8%. Alternatively, we could use the percentage of government positions held by women, which in 1996 (I can't find more recent data) was 33% in the US - including 14% of ministerial-level positions. Compare that to... well... pretty much everyone. France had 10% (including 14% of ministers), Italy had 7% (and 3.6% of ministers), and the UK had 6% (8% of ministers). 

As a country, we're undoubtedly racist and xenophobic - but again, this is difficult to quantify. I did find a survey ranking countries by diversity of their workforce - the US ranked 9th out of 50, below Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, and the Phillipines; but above Sweden (10th) , Denmark (13th), the UK (17th), Germany (23rd), Japan (37th), Italy (41st), etc. Using just the "country of birth" metric of diversity in their survey, we rank above Canada, the Netherlands, and Norway. While that doesn't say much about actual attitudes among the people, I would point out that, additionally, the US has managed to elect someone from a perceived minority to two terms in the presidential office; to the best of my knowledge, this cannot be said of chancellors in Germany, or prime ministers in the UK, and I haven't checked the rest of Europe yet.

Homophobia is also a real problem in the US, but again - perhaps not more so than other developed countries. I leave it to you to find metrics for this, as it's a mess of legal situations and attitudes. It's worth remembering, though, that nine states in the US, plus the District of Columbia, the Coquille Tribe, and the Suquamish Tribe, all recognize full marriage for same sex couples. The Defense of Marriage Act made marriage laws a state-level decision, so it's a patchwork of legislation. Compare this to, say, France, or the UK, where same-sex marriage is illegal but there are civil unions, or Italy or Greece, which don't recognize any same-sex union. 

As for communism and socialism - these are loaded words in our political rhetoric, and mean things in the US that they don't mean elsewhere. Actual socialism is fairly prevalent - viewable in such institutions as Social Security; unemployment insurance; Medicare and Medicaid; government-run power production as with Long Island Power Authority or the Tennessee Valley Authority; or even the concept of eminent domain. 

It's also important to remember, whenever you discuss what "Americans" think, that the US has 50 states, the District of Columbia, about 330 recognized tribes, and around 16 territories, for a total of 314,924,000 people. The US covers 3,790,000 square miles. Talking about the US is less like talking about the UK or France or Italy, and more like talking about the European Union, which covers 1,707,787 square miles and has a total population around 503,500,000.

Cabaedium
Cabaedium

To clarify, I don't hate Americans, or America. It's simply that the nation has merely talked about its own greatness for many years now, while working through corruption or apathy to erode that very greatness. It's time to start walking the walk, America. I certainly hope Americans *are* becoming more European, because the country needs to take care of itself and its own before it can lay any claim to be a "beacon of hope for the world," as American conservatives would have you believe it is.

sensi
sensi

@bryanfred1 

US public debt 100% of GDP

European Union public debt 82.5% of GDP

Something to add to you ignorant and conditioned drivel?

NoCompunction
NoCompunction

@Malena Calm down you talk like you're foaming at the mouth. 

"people still think homosexuality is a disease and you're still arguing about abortion!!" But those are examples of openness to new ideas and cultures: when there is an argument at all about abortion in a country whose populace has historically been pro-life or that people with strong anti-homosexual views are in the minority in a country whose populace has traditionally been anti or non-homosexual, it's hard to see otherwise. 

nsr019
nsr019

@Atadashi I have been to Western and Central Europe multiple times in the past several years, and in those few weeks I was there, I encountered more explicit racism directed toward me by strangers on the street than I have encountered in my entire life in the U.S. (no exaggeration). These were not in small towns and villages, either -- I'm talking about supposedly multinational cities like Paris. And I certainly was not doing anything to attract it.

I have since discovered that there are many travelers' blogs out there intended for minorities, which take a much different view of Europe than the mainstream, "Europe is so tolerant" mentality seen in posts like yours.

The bottom line is that I can't speak for everybody, but in my own personal experience, the U.S. is by far the most welcoming, tolerant country on Earth. Even with all the racial and cultural squabbling we have here, there is (1) a high baseline acceptance for the mingling of cultures, and (2) a self-awareness that this squabbling is going on.

ZacharyMartinez
ZacharyMartinez

@VincentLovece "Australia isn't half as diverse as the US is" - evidence for that? There's plenty of ethnic diversity in both countries.

"Australians move to the US in larger number than the other way around." - that's not about culture, it is about economic opportunities. The US population is 10-15 times bigger, which makes the economy that much bigger as well. Many more large international companies are headquartered in the US than in Australia, for instance.

MoisesIssi
MoisesIssi

@sensi @bryanfred1 The only ignorant here is you that only find words to insult.  You are throwing stupid numbers as if it mean anything.  I lived in Europe, you ignorant. And is no picnic to find a job.  I wonder if you ever stepped in Europe. Ignorant.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

Your point reinforces mine.  Four years ago US public debt was 65% of GDP; 3 year ago, 75%.  You rightly state where it is today (actually 102%).  Why is that?  Because we're spending like drunken sailors and debt-financing it, while the EU is facing up to the fact that the bill has come due.  Government expenditures across the EU have declined by 4% since 2009.  Here, every talking of slowing the rate of growth is decried as draconian and inhumane.

Atadashi
Atadashi

@nsr019 @Atadashi   Years ago, I visited New York City.  I was told by the friend I was visiting, "When your on the streets, don't make eye contact with anyone."  The following day, I was walking in Time Square; up ahead a woman with her briefcase was approaching me with her eyes looking down at the ground.  As she got closer, I looked straight into her eyes, smiled, and said, "Good morning." Her response was priceless; the smile and surprise on her face would have you believe she just found out she won the Lottery.  It worked in Europe, too.

One thing I learned in Europe, especially in Germany, people "keep to themselves" until they get to know you.  Your short trips probably do not give these people you come across enough time to get to know you.  Do you smile at them and greet them?  If not, someone has to "break the ice".

Raithea
Raithea

@nsr019 @Atadashi I would have to disaggree with the statement that the U.S. is the most welcoming nation. My experience between the U.S. and Canada is that Canada tends to be more open. Also, the upper echelons of society in Canada is far more diverse than in the U.S. as social mobility is greater in Canada.

Ralooval
Ralooval

@ZacharyMartinez


I immigrated to Australia last year.. Frankly speaking.. I moved here just because I had no chance of moving to the US... America is far much open and diverse than Australia is.. you can far easier fit-into the USA than you would in Australia... I find Australia insular and racist in some degree.. they have what I would term "the isolationist island mentality" here,,, I find Americans also enjoying more freedoms than Australians..they have a bill of rights,, and much less government intervention in their private lives.. and less taxes!!

KyleHanson
KyleHanson

@Raithea @Dachman 

Canadians have a great economy shared between just over 30 million citizens. That's about half of half of half of the US population. It's easier to support small populations especially with the advantages Canada has in the global market. You can't really compare the US and Canada. Also it's an incredibly homogeneous society. The exact opposite of the US. That makes a difference in the way a country would handle education. In America our governments have neglected inner city and predominantly black schools because like it or not racial preference existed and still does exist in the United States. But it has existed in any racially diverse nation so it's not like the US holds some special exclusive form of racism. In general when the majority rule, the minority will have some disadvantage. 

So yeah, we have problems in the US that Canada doesn't have. But if we copied the Canadian model we would without a doubt run into bigger issues that a country like Canada would't run into. 

Raithea
Raithea

@Dachman Sure! According to Corek, Miles. 2006. "Do poor children become poor adults? Lessons from a Cross Country comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility." A Canadian's wealth is far less dependent upon their parents wealth then an American's wealth. I think this is closely linked the fact that the Canadian education system is considered to be better than the American one. Also in terms of personal experience I tend to see a lot more interracial couples in Canada then I do in the US, particularly as compared to the Southern States, such as Florida.

Dachman
Dachman

Very broad statment care to back it up with actual facts?

Atadashi
Atadashi

@ruraynor Which "American"? ;-)  FYI, potatoes originated in South America (Peru, I believe.)  They have dozens of potato varieties, too.

ruraynor
ruraynor

@nstaley401 I like the term 'Staters'. Because it sounds like taters, and potatoes are American.